If you've been inspired to go palm oil-free, there are a few things to bear in mind before you do

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Iceland’s new Christmas  ad may have been deemed ‘too political’ for our TV screens this year, but its message about the environmental impact of palm oil is one that’s likely to remain in the public sphere for a long time to come.

Originally created by Greenpeace, the animated short film features an orangutan and the destruction of his rainforest habitat at the hands of palm oil growers. The real-life stats reflect the script - according to saynotopalmoil.com , palm oil production's resulted in the loss of over 50,000 orangutans. In countries that are major producers such as Malaysia, the orangutan is even being classified as critically endangered.

Going palm oil-free has never been more in the spotlight, and if you’ve been inspired to seek out beauty products that don’t contain the ingredient, a word of caution before you do - it’s not as straightforward as it may seem.

A key reason for this is the extent to which palm oil is ingrained into our products. Used largely for its emollient and surfactant properties, it can be found in everything from soaps to skincare and makeup (especially lipsticks). You’ll usually find it as elaeis guineensis oil on your labels.

However, as formulator, pharmacist and Twelve Beauty  founder Pedro Catala tells us, there are a number of other ingredients that contain or are derived from palm oil, which makes going palm oil-free extremely problematic.

To give you an idea of how far-reaching it is, Pedro has given us a list of potential palm oil perpetrators. It may well surprise you:

Vegetable oil, vegetable fat, palm kernel, palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, retinyl palmitate, palmolein, stearic acid, palmitic acid, palm stearine, palmitoyl oxostearamide, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium kernelate, sodium palm kernelate, sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate, hydrogenated palm glycerides, ethyl palmitate, octyl palmitate, palmityl alcohol.

It’s worryingly long, with concerns further fuelled by the lack of regulation within the sector. However, in 2004, an industry group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was founded to work with palm oil companies in the production of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. It’s a positive step however, as flagged by LUSH, smaller companies often struggle to meet the requirements for certification. Plus, it’s pricier to buy too which means that consumer demand is low.

It’s a minefield and one that has encouraged Pedro to seek out alternatives that can match palm oil composition and performance-wise, as well as be grown more easily in several areas of the world too. “While there are currently several campaigns worldwide promoting sustainable palm oil, as a formulator, it is my responsibility to replace it with other natural alternatives and curb its use altogether,” he says. He highlights sunflower oil, carnauba wax and coconut oil as particularly viable options. However, he flags that diversity in ingredient choice by brands is key in avoiding issues concerning availability due to overuse.

A combination of more stringent regulation and an industry-wide effort by brands to remove the ingredient from their supply chains is needed to make shopping for palm oil-free products easier for consumers. It won’t be easy, however brands such as Lush  are making significant strides in the area, most notably in their development of SLS and sodium stearate-free soaps (two potential sources of palm oil and palm derivatives). It’ll be a long road, but as they’re proving, brands are getting there.

Image credit:  'Rang-tan: the story of dirty palm oil,' Greenpeace .

Read more: Vegan skincare - what to look for in your products.

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